Of late, one event in the NFL has dominated the storylines more than anything that has happened on the field this season, the racial inequality protest led by Colin Kaepernick. The protest began last season, during a San Francisco preseason game when backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a stand on a social issue. However, it has grown into a national story, with even the President of the United States weighing in with his thoughts. At it’s core, the protest is a fairly straightforward complaint against racial inequality, yet it has become one of the most polarizing situations in sports history. It is incredible to see how much the protest has gathered pace in the past few weeks, as it has risen to the forefront of the NFL landscape.
The outcry against the racial inequality in the United States began last September, when Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the playing of the national anthem before an NFL game. The nation exploded into uproar, with people claiming that he “disrespected our troops” and “just wanted attention”. However, Kaepernick did not want to do either of these things, he wanted to call attention to the racial inequality of the United States. This led to many in the media to question whether or not this was an appropriate action for him to be doing before games. The NFL stayed relatively quiet, saying players are encouraged, but not required to stand but refused to say more. Yet many fans and others were enraged by what they thought was an action disrespectful to the United States. Eventually, Kaepernick explained why he had begun his protest, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color, to me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,”(Wyche). The message had a profound effect on the rest of the league, as many of his fellow players including 49ers teammates and from opposing teams joined his protest. After the initial media frenzy regarding the situation, attention began to shift away from it until it was brought back to the forefront of American culture by President Donald Trump in September 2017.
When Kaepernick began to kneel, the President of the United States was Barack Obama, who was a major supporter of civil rights protests. Obama said that Colin was simply exercising his constitutional rights. With his successor, the same was not true, as Trump began an open barrage of the protest in September 2017, dragging it back to relevance via Twitter. He declared that the protest was “Nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”(Lopez). His rhetoric on the issue claimed that the players did not care about race, and were only hoping to disrespect the United States. In all factuality, the President could not be further from the point, as that is the exact opposite of the protests goals. He called on the owners of the NFL to say, “Get that son of a b**** off the field right now, he's fired. He's fired!” (Lopez) regarding the players who took part in the outcry. The weekend after the Trump’s statements were made over 200 players chose to kneel or do some other method of protest during the national anthem. The protests continued for the next several weeks’ leading Vice President Mike Pence to walk out of an Indianapolis Colts game after players ignored Trump’s demand they stood (Watkins). This led the NFL to finally comment, as commissioner Roger Goodell said that he and the league would prefer if players would stand for the anthem before games.
Time and time again throughout this controversy, there has been a question of whether or not the idea is constitutional. The players claim that it falls under the first amendment and freedom of expression, which most people, including former president Obama, agree with. However, President Trump and many of his fellow opponents reject it on the grounds that they believe that it is a protest against the flag and military of the United States. The executive branch of the government however, is ignoring the fact that the players are entitled to free speech, and thus they should not be able to threaten the players in order to make them stop what they are doing. It is similar to when the Supreme court ruled that students do not have to stand for the pledge of allegiance in school, during West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (West Virginia State Board). In this case, it was decided that students have a constitutional right to refuse to stand for the pledge of allegiance if they did not feel it was necessary to do so. This also meant that authority figures were not allowed to strong arm their subordinates into doing something if they did not want to. This protest is almost identical to what President Trump and Washington are attempting to do to the players involved in the protest, as they are violating their privilege of free speech. By telling players that they are required to stand, the President is actually violating the constitutional rights of the NFL and its players.
For me, the protest is completely justifiable and is for an important cause. In my opinion, the social issue that Kaepernick is attempting to address is one that absolutely needs to be worked on. For the past few years, racial tensions have been very high, and Kaepernick's decision to protest it in a way as peaceful as simply taking a knee during the anthem is an appropriate way to voice his message in a simple way. The fact that he does not feel the need to draw more attention to himself, but still lead a protest is incredibly powerful. I think method by which the protest was handled early on by Kaepernick could not have been handled any better. Kaepernick handled the pressure that was forced upon him by the President and the media was also done in a very respectable manner. Trump’s behavior regarding the movement Kaepernick has been leading has been nothing short of pathetic, and Colin’s response could not be any better than it has been. He has taken all of the things that the President has thrown at him in stride, and to me, this has only made the protest more poignant. If the players had simply backed down in the face of adversity it would have destroyed everything the protest had built up, yet they were able to stand under the pressure and add even more importance to the social issue they had been attempting to fix. In my mind, as well as helping a social cause, this protest has further proved the ineptitude of President Trump’s administration. Trump has spent time bashing a peaceful movement that is out of his line of duty and has been attempting to influence the employers of those involved, while the President really does not have the authority to do any of this. He is trying to take away the freedom of expression from a group of people, which is deeply distressing to me as this is what our country was built upon yet our President is seemingly ignoring this. If I was a player in today’s NFL, I would absolutely be a member of this protest, even though I am not personally affected by what it is attempting to change, it has proved to me there are serious social issues in our country that must be addressed.
While the protest has made major waves on the landscape of America, the person who started it may have come off the worst. Since starting the movement last year, Colin Kaepernick has lost his job as quarterback of the 49ers, while seemingly being ostracized by the rest of the league owners. Many in the media believe that it has nothing to do with Kaepernick's on field ability, but more that the owners of NFL franchises are not willing to deal with the distraction that may come with signing him (Klemko). That is a damning statement in terms of the NFL as it shows that they are unwilling to try and help cause social change in a situation that truly needs to be addressed. While Kaepernick and his fellow protesters have already made an enormous impact in bringing this issue to light, there is still lots of work to do in order for the change to be acted upon.